The winning power of libraries and bookstores
When we talk about literature, we have to talk about community. That was one of the reasons I started this column: I was thinking constantly about writing and reading as social tools and constructs, what they open up for people and what they shut out. My goal has been to interrogate “tired” elements of literature — the traditional canon, tropes and cliches — while elevating the work of writers who make the literary world something inspiring and worthy of admiration.
But community isn’t just an intangible idea, and especially in areas like the arts, it’s important that community manifests in concrete, physical, recognizable spaces. For literature, very often, this means places like libraries, schools and bookstores. Too often, these spaces go underappreciated and underutilized.
I still remember being a kid and suddenly having to reckon with the fact that news that bookstores were “a dying business.” This was in 2011, a couple of years after Kindles and Nooks started taking off. The Borders in my hometown was closing. It was a five-minute walk from my mother’s house, and she’d taken my brother and I there on many afternoons; I’d spent a lot of time there, snacking on scones and Italian sodas, reading “Swordbird” or “Twilight” or (yes, this is true) that month’s “Poets & Writers.” I was devastated that Borders was going to disappear and personally offended at the suggestion that it was only a matter of time before every other bookstore in the world disappeared, too.
The second and last major bookstore in my hometown, a Barnes & Noble, closed just last month. This hit even harder: I’d never study in the couches by the music section again, never (in my wildest dreams) see a spine bearing my own name on one of those shelves I’d browsed so many times as a kid. The counterargument was buying online: “Everyone uses Amazon Prime these days,” my dad explained. The last time I went to that Barnes & Noble, it was December and the whole store was flushed with Christmas shopping. I remember feeling so delighted at the sights and sounds of people in every aisle, families and friends walking around together in their bulky coats, picking up books and debating stories and recommending gifts for their loved ones. I wanted to demand an explanation from the parties responsible: Who could possibly prefer Amazon to that?
In the face of crushing sentiment, it’s easy to feel like the world is divided up into your foes and your allies, the people who love these places and the people who want to buy them out. I know it’s really a lot less simple and more practical than that: Most of us are regular people, after convenience, not particularly evil or good.
Luckily, libraries exist, and they seem to have a little more staying power than big-time bookstores. Libraries are like community Swiss Army knives: Anyone can go in and access information for free, not to mention they’re constantly organizing events and programs for the benefit of the community. That one place can have so many types of books, audiobooks, movies, TV shows, music, art, games — it’s like a little oasis of culture and value all poured into one building. Libraries are also one of the few communal mainstays across the country that are oriented, for the most part, around affordability and freedom of information.
What’s important at the end of the day is that we have somewhere to go to reflect. It’s true that we all need convenience, but we also all need a moment — a moment away from the insanity of the world, and a place where we can reflect and take stock of the things that do matter. We’re lucky in Ann Arbor that we live in a place that recognizes the sacredness of spaces like libraries and bookstores, places where literary works are held and people are encouraged and invited every single day to come and interact with them. It might seem like an obvious value to carry, but it’s worth vocalizing as a reminder of a societal heart that many of us take for granted daily. Anyone who’s ever attended a reading at Literati or lost themselves in the maze of shelves at Dawn Treader might know the feeling I’m talking about: thankfulness not only for the fact that a place like this exists, but also for what a place like this signifies for people.